Based on my understanding of Joseph Conrad’s 1900 novel Lord Jim, the 1925 film version faithfully follows the book’s storyline without capturing its essence.
For if Lord Jim the novel is the story of a young and delusional white man who makes all the wrong choices because he fancies himself wise, brave, and invincible, Lord Jim the movie is about an old and upstanding white man who makes all the wrong choices because he is just plain stupid.
Directed by Victor Fleming (he of Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz) and adapted by George C. Hull and John Russell (whose South Pacific tales were quite popular in those days), this Lord Jim feels all wrong.
For instance, near the film’s climax the honorable Jim lets evil bandits – scenery-chewing rats Raymond Hatton and Noah Beery – get away so they can have the opportunity to wreak havoc all around them. A kind old man had once given Jim a chance to redeem himself, and since then he had felt obliged to do the same for his fellow men. Now, there is a fine line between idealism and stupidity, but the line is there nevertheless. Hull and Russell’s Lord Jim crosses that line one time too many to merit any respect for his actions. Whatever tragedy befalls him is completely of his own making, and it is well deserved.
Percy Marmont, an English stage actor who at the age of 40 unexpectedly became a film star, plays the virile Jim. The dandified Marmont was 42 at the time and looked about 65. As a result, Jim’s budding romance with a young woman (a lovely Shirley Mason, the less famous sister of popular silent film star Viola Dana) seems pathetically out of place. Worse yet, Marmont’s attempts to act macho fail to impress, while his facial expressions and mannerisms convey pompous self-pity instead of honor or determination. (According to film historian Anthony Slide, Percy Marmont thoroughly dismissed his Hollywood career. Marmont saw himself as a stage actor who made stupid films for the money.)
On the plus side, the jungle scenes look remarkably real – even though they were shot in California – while Fleming keeps the action moving in this relatively short (75-minute) film. But no movie can succeed when it asks us to admire the supreme idiocy of its central character.
Lord Jim (1925). Director: Victor Fleming. Screenplay: George C. Hull and John Russell, from a novel by Joseph Conrad. Cast: Percy Marmont, Shirley Mason, Noah Beery, Raymond Hatton
Jim (Percy Marmont) is enlisted as a seaman under the despicable Captain Brown (Noah Beery). When Brown’s ship, the Patna, carrying 800 Muslims on their pilgrimage to Mecca, collides with an unidentified derelict (i.e., some sort of floating object) the captain and his crew immediately head for the nearest lifeboat. After a brief crisis of conscience, Jim joins them.
The Patna, however, doesn’t sink. A French boat rescues the ship and its human cargo – something that is great news for all involved, except for the officers who had failed to fulfill their duty. As a result of the incident, Jim loses his mate’s certificate and is branded a coward.
Eventually, a kind-hearted merchant finds Jim work in the East Indies village of Patusan. Jim proves his worth to the local chief (Nick de Ruiz), thus becoming a respected personage known as “tuan Jim” – Lord Jim.
Besides finding redemption and inner peace, Jim also finds love in the person of Jewel (Shirley Mason), a spirited (and quite tanned) white girl who had been abused by her slimy stepfather, Cornelius (Raymond Hatton), and who looks young enough to be Jim’s great-granddaughter. Upon finding Cornelius rummaging through his personal belongings, Jim kicks the meanie out of the village.
Paradise is lost once Captain Brown and his ragtag crew, led by none other than Cornelius, show up at the village. A deadly fight erupts. Brown and his men are trapped, but Jim stupidly decides to let them go as long as they never set foot in the village again.
They leave, but – surprise! – those men cannot be trusted. On their way out, they attack the camp of the chief’s handsome son, Dain Waris (George Magrill), killing the young man. The chief blames Lord Jim for Dain’s death, and shoots him. Jim resignedly accepts his fate.